April Fool’s Day In France (POISSON D’AVRIL): What’s With The Fish?

Why is April first called April Fish 'Poisson d'avril' in France?

In addition to the hot air balloon, the sexy little black dress and photography, the French may have inadvertently invented April Fools’ day. Discover how this happened, how it’s celebrated, and why it’s called April Fish day in France.

April Fools day in France (today)

April Fools’ day in France, is called “Poisson d’Avril” (April Fish) and like many countries, it’s designated as the day to play pranks and jokes on unsuspecting people.

A common prank, especially among school-aged children is to draw a fish (usually hand drawn) onto the backs of unsuspecting victims. When the unfortunate victim discovers the fish taped to their backs, kids usually have a good yuck and shout “Poisson d’Avril.” 

On April fools day, kids in France like to tape a paper fish to the backs of their friends as a prank

Examples of pranks and hoaxes played in France

Adults play pranks and jokes too in France. From simple pranks on friends, family and co-workers to elaborate fake news hoaxes and marketing pranks. 

  • In 2018, the news outlet Nice-Matin published an April fools day hoax article about the famous blue chairs along the beautiful “Promenade des Anglais” stating that they were replaced by mundane yellow chairs.
  • In 2017, news outlet Var-Matin played an especially cruel hoax on April first by reporting that the French game Boules would be banned.
  • Even RATP, the French public transport network gets in on the act by renaming some of Paris metro stations using wordplay and puns. For instance, RATP renamed the station “Opéra” to “Apéro,” which means appetizer.”Télégraphe” metro station became “#Tweet” and “Quatre Septembre” became “1er Avril”. And to ensure the pranks get some excellent marketing and publicity, RATP uses the hashtag #Stationdavril

RATP-HOAX-TRAIN-STATION names

French April Fools (Poisson d’avril) traditions of the past

For a while, at the beginning of the twentieth century, people in France used to send cute little illustrated postcards on April 1st to wish friends and family good fortune, love, friendship and happiness! A tradition that isn’t so popular today. Too bad because the vintage French “Poisson d’avril” postcards are adorable. 

A vintage poisson d'avril post card from France

Old post card people used to send for April fools day in France

Old post card people used to send for April fools day in France

April Fools may have started in France in the 1600s

Although April Fools’ Day, also called All Fools’ Day, has been celebrated by different cultures for several centuries, its exact origins remain a mystery.

Some historians believe playing pranks and tricking people on April first can be traced back to 1564 France and King Charles the IX.

Le Grand Tour De France

Catherine de Medicis, wanted her son, King Charles the IX of France to get to know his kingdom, so she arranged “Le grand tour de France” which began in January of 1564 and ended on May 1st, 1566.

During his two year trip,  Charles, his mother and an entourage of nearly 2 000 people travelled over 400 kilometres through some of the most remote border areas of the French kingdom.

Map of the Grand tour around French kindgom: Charles IX

Why April First?

In an effort to standardize the date for the new year, Charles issued the Edict of Roussillon (Édit de Roussillon) during his grand tour of France, which declared January 1st as the start of the New Year for the entire French Kingdom. 

At the time, the various diocese in the French kingdom celebrated the New Year on a different date, which wasn’t unusual at the time. 

Throughout most of recorded history, the majority of cultures used different dates that were central to their lives or dates tied to religion.  In France, some Diocese like Savoie, the New year began on Christmas day. In other areas, the new year began on Easter, which is a moveable date. 

By far the most popular date recognized in France and most of the western world as the new year was the 25th of March, the Feast of the Annunciation however because it landed during a holy week, the actual festivities didn’t begin until the first of April. 

At the time, the German Emperor had already fixed January 1st as the date of the New year, but it wasn’t until the Catholic Pope Gregory XIII introduced his Gregorian calendar (the same one we all use today) did the change in New Years date slowly start to take hold of the western world

Even though the French King and the pope switched over to the Gregorian calendar, many French peasants continued to celebrate New Years on the old date, especially April 1st either because they didn’t want to switch or because they weren’t aware of the change in New year’s date. News travelled slowly back then. 

Why pranks

In Medieval times, people would often give gifts, tithes and visit friends, family and neighbours on April 1st for the New Year. 

One theory as to why pranks play such a significant role on April first is that those late adopters who didn’t celebrate on January first were ridiculed, teased and sometimes people played pranks on them. 

French peasants would play tricks and try to confuse their neighbours and friends into believing it was the new year by dropping in, sometimes bringing fake gag New Years gifts on April 1st. 

From there the custom playing pranks supposedly spread through the rest of Europe, the UK and eventually to the new world. 

Why do French people call April First, “April Fish?”

One theory as to why April first is called “April Fish” in France has to do with fisherman. April is the breeding period of fish and fisherman were prohibited from fishing during this time, so some people would give these fisherman friends a fake fish as a funny prank. 

Another plausible explanation is that since most of Europe celebrated the New year during Lent, a period which people were only allowed to eat fish, people gave fish as gifts (for new years) and so April fish became the name given to April first.

April Fools Day

Today April fools’ day is celebrated in many countries around the world, including Switzerland, Denmark, Italy, Canada, the UK and many more. Each with their own little idiosyncrasies.

France, Italy and the French-speaking province of Quebec Canada (where my family is from ) are the only countries that call April first April Fish day where kids stick paper fish to the backs of their victims as a prank. 

One last thing. If you’re ever in France on April first, keep your eye out for fish shaped chocolates sold in stores through Easter.

April Fools! or is it?